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Learning to Partner with a Life-Place

by Peter Berg

(Ecuador Dispatch #1, June 12, 2004)

On a fog-wet spring morning in San Francisco, our unusual urban group climbed to the top of a rock promontory midway along a canyon trail to   get a clear view of the standout feature in a partially undeveloped park. The expedition of city explorers consisted of a wilderness enthusiast who arrived on a motorcycle with his realtor girl friend riding behind, three environmental students from Minnesota, Connecticut and New Jersey, and myself as guide. This park presents a jarring contrast between native and exotic vegetation, plants that grew there naturally and those brought from another part of the world. Eucalyptus trees originating in Australia were planted over a hundred years ago and subsequently spread invasively over the hillsides along the trail. Then they stopped short as though a border had been drawn as part of a landscaper’s design. It was actually a natural effect, attributable to a flat spot where water from a creek spread out to nourish a wide swath of yellow willows and dozens of other native plants. Willows thrive where their roots are constantly wet, and here they had become too large and dense to be crowded out by past or present intruders. The same group of indigenous species had probably occupied this identical place starting some time after the Ice Age, perhaps as long as ten thousand years. It didn’t take specialized knowledge to see how the tall, straight, shaggy trunks of the sparsely leafed non-natives differed from low, impenetrably dense willows that had prospered so well they had grown to medium-size trees. An inescapable trace of the difference appeared when the sharp cough drop scent of eucalyptus nuts that we had all noticed along the trail suddenly yielded to an inviting humus perfume of dark brown decaying willow leaves. It was as complete a transition as when a chapter ends and a new one begins.

We sat on outcrops of what had once been the compacted floor of the Pacific Ocean. The edge of the sea bottom was twisted and thrust upward millions of years ago by the force of the North American and Pacific Tectonic Plates colliding during Continental Drift. As ancient as the foundations for natural life here might be, the stand of willows that we had just walked through looked narrow and vulnerable from above. Newly built houses looped ominously around the rim of the canyon like an encircling noose. What we were seeing was only a miniscule refuge. A sense of thoughtful sadness came over the group.

One of the college students had been quiet until our stop. Now her low voice broke the silence. “This isn’t the way they taught me botany.”

What an off-center remark! She had our complete surprised attention and quickly obliged with an explanation. She had taken the course because of an impulse toward Nature as a relief from conflicting social and personal directions. She even planned a trip to Ecuador soon to volunteer working with forest revegetation projects. The botany class had been a way to get a little background. “From the beginning we just learned about uses for plants and making them as productive as possible. The professor said it definitely wasn’t an ecology class and that they liked poisons, herbicides, fertilizers, and so forth. I got put off and didn’t get much out of it ”

The rest of us looked at each other and nodded affirmation with the relieved understanding that comes from solving a puzzle together. “Well, at least he was honest for a change,” blurted out the wilderness loving biker, speaking what the rest of us felt. “Things may actually be changing for the better if they feel it’s necessary to make that distinction,” someone else asserted wryly.

We had taken the walk to see some broad aspects of northern California as a unique natural place. Having been left in its original condition, this small section of the park retained some of the classic essentials. Just walking through brought the unique experience of a coastal canyon watershed. Chert stones in several shades of red crunching beneath our feet proclaimed the soil underpinnings. Native plants grew in their chosen natural habitats: watercress in the creek, piggyback plants in the shade, yellow blue-eyed grass in a sunny patch of marsh. A red-tailed hawk’s nest darkened the crotch of some tree branches.

We even had a view of the built-up, paved over city stretching out beyond the park. The same native elements in this refuge persisted there in some form as well, traveling in the air or lying dormant beneath the sidewalks and streets. The creek might disappear down a storm drain and into an underground sewer at a point farther on but it still ran free here. How many of these things could be seen in other places of the city outside the park? How much could be restored?  Our conversation until the walk ended was occupied with similar atypical urban observations, seemingly coaxed by the living generosity of the creek.

But the student’s dissatisfaction implied a different kind of question.

Meaningful Ecological Learning, Fast

The present planet-wide ecological crisis is foremost in the minds of an ever-widening circle that encompasses groups as different as scientists and business planners, academics and construction workers, and even some politicians. Our concern has moved beyond self-serving quibbling to identify this calamity as a primary problem in urgent need of solutions. Denial of crucial indications such as global warming is deluded and dangerous. It only contributes to public unease through increased frustration and suspicion.

More and more of the national and international issues of the 21st century can be directly traced to ecologically rooted causes. Struggles over energy availability and use, limitations on water and other essential resources, food shortages, and increasing population have already become the basis for wars that jeopardize reasonable approaches to ecological imbalances.

We can’t delay in reversing our rampant destruction and learning to live integrally with the rest of life. Ecological sustainability can’t continue to be viewed as a luxury that only the richest countries can afford. It is an essential goal for every human society regardless of economic level, geographic location, or culture. It can no longer be compartmentalized as just an environmental concern either. We have to learn to live within the limits of the biosphere, and this is such a serious problem that it requires a thorough going redirection of the central course of society.

We desperately need to gain knowledge that enables individuals and communities to make ecologically beneficial decisions about what to do and how to do it. This has to become a primary function of contemporary information media and education at all levels. At present in even the best institutions of learning, general access to useful information about sustainability is as remote as Antarctica. It needs to become as close as a radio, a television set, or a neighbor’s conversation. It definitely needs to be taught at every level of schooling. If classes in specific natural sciences such as botany aren’t required to teach these things, where can a student learn?

A Personal, Local Start

Learning how to develop solutions at the level of the whole biosphere may be too far a reach for most people, but at least they can find out what needs to be done in the particular place where they live. Work to become compatible with local life systems in a home place. These are both comprehensible and realistic goals. Each person lives in a specific bioregion, a life-place that is an essential part of the planetary web of life. Even small outlays of effort locally can genuinely benefit some aspect of the mutuality of life. They result in tangible outcomes that are there to live with and watch while their impact on other natural features grows. There is no question that this kind of involvement will stimulate the expansion of personal ecological consciousness. Salutarily, it is a genuine and necessary remedy that will aid more wide-ranging cures such as decreasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or reducing global warming.

We need to gain knowledge about regional ecology with an emphasis on social and cultural implications. How do we identify the basic starting points for maintaining and restoring life where we live?

Active Projects Have a Priority

Because rapid action is required to harmonize with local natural systems and to remedy damage already done, there have to be to hands-on projects: learning by doing essential work to achieve natural health in our life-places.

Choosing these projects can follow simple guidelines.  Because the educational core is lit by an ecological imperative, there are three clear sources for activities. These are primary colors that will make up all the shades and blends of a full spectrum of possible projects.

The first is restoration and maintenance of natural features to whatever extent is immediately possible.  These rehabilitory efforts to restore life-place health must be undertaken with a sensibility for continuous improvement. They are the cornerstones for more projects aimed to eventually regain the highest possible level of original vitality. For example, planting native trees on an eroded hillside can be the first step toward restoring habitats for native plants and animals, and might eventually lead to creating a wild corridor.

Next is developing sustainable means to satisfy basic human needs. Food, water, energy, shelter, materials, and information are essential, and they can be elaborated in numerous variations. Some possibilities: growing indigenous plant species for food, reusing wastewater, using renewable energy to power households, building with recycled or regenerated native materials, creating new products from indigenous resources, and heightening bioregional awareness through public media. And those are only single entries from long “to do” lists in each area.

Finally there needs to be support for living in place in the widest possible range of ways from economics and culture to politics and philosophy. This involves both proactive undertakings that create positive alternatives as well as protests against ecological devastation and disruption.

What Else is Different About Life-Place Education?

The main focus for life-place learning is on the ecologically bounded place itself. It isn’t difficult to locate this spot. Identify the climate, weather, landforms, watershed, predominant geological and soil conditions, native plants and animals, and sustainable aspects of the traditional culture along with ecological practices of present day inhabitants. Your life-place is the geographic area where those things converge. Lessons, workshops, and exercises need to be directed toward identifying and harmonizing with the specific features of that place, and they should do this while assisting to carry out public projects that foster ecological sustainability.

If participants include children, young adults and seniors, all the better because that will mean the whole range of generations within the community is involved. Each age group brings essential ingredients for the ultimate success of the educational program.

Another new feature for life-place schooling is that it operates to some extent throughout the year. This is important because it is the only way everyone can witness the effect of each season on what is being learned and the work that’s done. Students need to observe the movement that takes place within life processes over time, and responses to different seasonal conditions. Otherwise they won’t perceive characteristics that are indispensable; cycles of change and how forces of life vary from month to month.

A First Year’s Worth of Learning/Doing

The first year needs to be as basic as possible because of its foundational role for future studies and projects. A valuable starting place is the fact that every life-place has lost some of the original trees and plants that provided habitats and were essential members of ecosystems. Revegetation projects to replant native plants are undoubtedly needed. Due to the massive displacement of these species by timber cutting, farming and land development, it is likely that their identities and inter-workings will be relatively unknown. In fact, the overall ecological life patterns of the place will need to be rediscovered.  To address these problems set two practical objectives: 1) propagate indigenous plants in local neighborhoods, and 2) create a map and guide that shows characteristics of local natural systems.

To cover four seasons the program can be divided into quarters of three months each.

First Quarter

a)   Native plant species. Locate and identify, obtain seeds through gathering and other sources, plant seeds.

b)   Watershed. Begin to identify natural landforms and water bodies from available charts and direct outdoors observation.

c)   Arts and handicrafts. Research existing examples of arts and products created from local materials. Create planters for seeds from recycled containers.

d)   Mapping. Create individual maps showing landforms, watersheds, water bodies, soils, native plants and animals, and major human interactions with them (Discovering Your Life-Place: A First Bioregional Workbook contains this exercise).

Second Quarter

a)  Native plants for habitat restoration. Grow indigenous plant seedlings preferably in local neighborhood greenhouses.

b)  Soil exploration. Hike through different locations to observe landforms, geological characteristics, and soils. Test for soil types, study erosion, and learn stages of compost cycle.

c)  Food consciousness. Learn what native foods are presently available and how they are prepared. Grow vegetable seedlings.

d)  Begin a consolidated large-scale map of the bioregion.

e)  Determine revegetation sites and begin planting native trees (at that time or in a more appropriate season).

f)   Continue First Quarter identification of native species and watershed, and arts and handicrafts research.

Third Quarter 

a)  Climate and weather characteristics. Identify seasonal variations and effects. Emphasize annual periods of rain or snow for water availability, create means for collecting rain or snow melt water, relate water availability to growth and development of plants, learn water sources and human utilization.

b)  Energy sources and uses. Identify and contrast renewable and non-renewable forms of energy, relate human energy needs to climate and weather, build model solar rooftop water-heating system.

c)  Continue First and Second Quarter activities.

Fourth Quarter

a)  Indigenous culture. Research archeological sources for information and explore sites. Create awareness about indigenous people (speakers, visits, interviews, oral histories, etc.) Assist museums and indigenous peoples’ service agencies or groups.

b)  Literature. Read works by past and present local writers. Write stories, poems and journals using life-place themes. Explore at least one other language that is used besides the dominant tongue of the place.

c)  Continue First, Second and Third Quarter activities.

d)  Plan next year’s work to continue present projects and initiate new ones.

To accommodate conventional school and job schedules of students, it may be necessary to hold classes (whatever number of sessions per week proves most workable) for only two hours in the late afternoon, and two hours in the early evening. (Perhaps with a dinner break in between.) The first session should be spent working on outdoor projects to take advantage of daylight, while the second can be indoors for lessons, study, writing, and workshops.

The teacher is primarily a guide to the work/learning process. A background in ecology and the natural sciences is essential, but this can be from practical experience or personal study as well as formal instruction. The teacher-guide should also have a working experience with previous restoration and sustainability projects. Because potential candidates for teachers may come from many fields, and life-paces themselves vary so widely, it would be inappropriate to advise a universal work plan. Let the subjects be chosen to follow a direction that is organic in the specific place, and determine their order, amount of study, and seasonal duration by the needs of projects at hand.

The one imperative for a teacher is to avoid the trap of determining student results through evaluations such as examinations or tests. Rebuilding a role for human beings in the natural flows of the place where they live will not be achieved by a grade at the end of the term. This goal can only be measured by the degree of a student’s involvement in the accomplishment of direct, practical results. With class subjects ranging from restoring a habitat or a watershed, producing food and energy through renewable means, utilizing native and recycled materials in making products, and creating life-place culture, each member has started on a life-long exploration. What is learned can even transfer to benefit other places where a student may visit or live in the future.

This is a constructive way to begin learning to identify with and actually become part of a place in the biosphere. It is overdue.  And needs to start immediately.